- Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment
Students of Quaker history in colonial America are familiar with the traumatic events of the “Paxton Boys’” massacre of peaceful Conestoga Indians in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1763 and subsequent march on Philadelphia to confront Friends there. In this thoroughly researched book, Kevin Kenny fills in details and places the incident in a broader context: the Paxton Boys were part of a colonial philosophy of conquest by arms that culminated in the American Revolution and ended Penn’s “holy experiment” of a Peaceable Kingdom.
Peaceable Kingdom Lost is divided into five chronological sections, each describing the episodic development of Penn’s philosophy into actual government—and that utopian vision’s destruction through competing religious and philosophical claims, pragmatic politics, violence, and greed, among other factors. “False Dawn” presents Penn’s “enlightened” views, the context in which he sought to give them concrete political expression, and the forces that eventually would cause his “experiment” to end. “Theatre of Bloodshed and Rapine” needs little more description! It was brutal in the 1750s. “Zealots” describes the violence of settlers on the frontier in Pennsylvania and the details of the massacre of the Conestogas for which the Paxton Boys are most famous. “War of Words” gives intriguing information about the pamphlet wars that followed the Paxton “invasion” of Philadelphia, including accusations against Quakers and other pacifists—and some Quakers’ defense of their own willingness to take up arms in defense. “Unraveling,” too, requires little imagination. The social order on the frontier unraveled as the Pennsylvania Assembly failed to act decisively, the American Revolution broke out, and the forces represented by the Paxton Boys “repudiated Penn’s vision and destroyed the remains of the Peaceable Kingdom.”
Quakers reading this book will find sobering information about the complexity of Penn’s motivations and the betrayal of his vision by his own sons and agents. The development of a Quaker culture in Pennsylvania corrupted by wealth and power is also portrayed – helpful background for understanding the work of such 18th century Quaker reformers as the Pembertons, John Woolman, and Anthony Benezet. Another helpful aspect of the book for Friends is the vivid depiction of the circumstances surrounding Woolman’s famous trip in 1763 to visit an Indian village in northeastern Pennsylvania, a depiction that makes his journey even more incredible.
Missing for Friends, though, are any of the “iconic” stories of Quaker actions on the frontier such as “leaving the latchstring out”; an in-depth understanding of Friends’ leaving the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1756; or even mention of Woolman’s and Benezet’s work for and among Native Americans. Nor is any mention made of Benezet’s remarkable response to Quakers’ taking up arms as the Paxton Boys approached Philadelphia—a response that made use of a Moravian philosophy of focusing on “essentials” and allowing liberty in other matters. [End Page 42]
Peaceable Kingdom Lost leaves the reader with a sobering assessment of the possibilities of ultraist visions in a “fallen” world and even a nagging question about the centrality of the peace testimony if “liberty” is to be given to those with differing interpretations of its religious, political, and practical applications.